Compared to what? Rural poverty and NCLB

In most discussions about the problems (or successes, for that matter) in American public education, it is the schools in large urban centers that are usually held up as the prime examples. However, in a recent blog, Robin Lambert of The Rural School and Community Trust reveals important information from the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) about another, often overlooked area:

“High-poverty rural schools spend LESS per pupil than high-poverty urban schools and less than most other rural schools. And, ‘remote’ rural schools — those that are more than 35 miles from a city and more than 10 miles from a town — have higher rates of poverty than many urban schools. In fact, African American and American Indian/Native Alaskan students who attend remote rural schools are more likely to attend a high poverty school than are their peers in cities” (Rural Matters).

The article goes on to point out these facts:

“For African American and American Indian/Native Alaskan students in remote rural schools, the percentages are even higher. Eighty-seven percent (87%) of African American and 79% of American Indian/Native Alaskan students attend a moderate to high poverty remote rural school, compared to 78% and 62%, respectively, in cities. In fact, more than three-quarters of African American students and nearly half of American Indian/Native Alaskan students attend remote rural schools where more than 75% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches” (Rural Matters).

Meanwhile, George Wood, Director of The Forum for Education and Democracy shared this: “In an editorial in the Tulsa World, senior editor Ken Neal points out that ‘When most poverty is factored out of U.S. public school performance, U.S. schools rank No. 1 in the world. Since the U.S. has the highest childhood poverty among the competing nations, what does that say about the schools? About the nation?  It says that poverty is the biggest problem of the schools and that poverty, not schools, is the biggest problem in the U.S.’ But does NCLB, or any other federal policy, even begin to address this issue?  Nope. Nothing in the law demands that school funding be equalized, that experienced and successful teachers be equally distributed, or that schools not be allowed to be segregated by socioeconomic status.” (FED Blog, 9/12/07)

Just for the record, I have spent my entire teaching career in “remote” rural schools, predominantly African American, where 90-100% of students qualified for free or reduced lunches. These school systems  have no industry, few or no retail business; in some, the school district itself is the largest employer. These are the types of schools that programs such as Title I were intended to help, and indeed, were it not for the state and federal funds these schools receive, the children in such districts could receive no public education at all. But what about the quality of that education?

For example, most of the school districts here in the Delta region of Mississippi get less than 20% (most less than 15%) of their operating funds from local revenues, and over 25% from Federal funds (2006 State Superintendent Report). Because they are so dependent upon federal and state funds, these districts must comply with all the provisions of NCLB. Unlike more affluent districts, they cannot risk the consequences of non-participation. Yet these poorer schools and districts are also most likely to be penalized by the intended and unintended consequences of the law that was supposed to help provide their students with more equitable education.